Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s Pastoral Approach Echoes Through the Catholic Church Today

COMMENTARY: There are lessons to be learned from the Chicago cardinal, who died 25 years ago, in today’s climate of synodality.

Cardinal Joseph Bernardin visits the Pontifical North American College in 1996.
Cardinal Joseph Bernardin visits the Pontifical North American College in 1996. (photo: ANGELO SCIPIONI / Associated Press)

The U.S. bishops arrived in Baltimore on Sunday on the 25th anniversary of the death of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago. It was fitting, as Cardinal Bernardin was the great architect of the USCCB, serving as its first and formative general secretary from 1968 to 1972, and later as president, from 1974 to 1977. He was, in the judgment of George Weigel, “arguably the most powerful Catholic prelate in American history; he was certainly the most consequential since the heyday of James Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.”

Weigel, writing in 2011, declared the “Bernardin Era” was over. Ten years later, though, there remain lessons to be learned from the late cardinal. 


Seamless Garment 

Cardinal Bernardin would have found echoes of his pastoral approach in the pontificate of Pope Francis. His “seamless garment” approach to life issues comports with the Holy Father’s insistence that abortion should be addressed in the wider array of life issues, including the death penalty and poverty. 

At the same time, the courtly Southern gentleman from Charleston, South Carolina, would likely blanch at the harshness with which Pope Francis expresses himself. “Hiring an assassin” is not how the charming Cardinal Bernardin spoke, and he was always careful not to ruffle feathers.


Bureaucratic Clericalism

When Joseph Bernardin arrived in Chicago from Cincinnati, he succeeded Cardinal John Cody, a figure deeply associated with the clericalism now routinely denounced — authoritarian, privileged, distant. Archbishop Bernardin was a new breed of bishop; indeed, the archetypal bishop of the 1970s. He was collegial, consultative and collaborative. He adopted an informal, warm style: “I am Joseph, your brother,” he introduced himself. That went over well; that the biblical Joseph he quoted was the senior administrative officer in Egypt regime was also fitting, if overlooked. 

Cardinal Bernardin was the master bureaucratic tactician. He advanced another form of clericalism, the bureaucratic clericalism of offices and administrators, where structures grew massively and busied themselves with issuing grandiloquent statements on a vast array of topics. 

The USCCB (actually, its predecessor structures, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the U.S. Catholic Conference) was developed as a clerical bureaucracy par excellence during Cardinal Bernardin’s reign as primus inter pares of the American episcopate. 

Instructive was the contrast with Cardinal John O’Connor of New York, who famously had little time for bureaucratic maneuvering and consequently for the episcopal conference. It may have been that Cardinal O’Connor realized early on that, despite his many gifts and decades in the bureaucratic environment of the U.S. Navy, he was no match for Cardinal Bernardin in organizing “the body” of bishops, as the conference came to be known in insider parlance.

Pope Francis inveighs against clericalism of the bad old sort regularly; but on bureaucratic clericalism, in which a welter of administrative offices controls the energies of the Church, his approach is ambiguous. 

On the one hand, a Church tied up in meetings, instead of getting dirty in the streets, is anathema to him. On the other hand, he has piled synod upon synod on the Church, each with an ever more exhaustive set of consultative procedures.

The Synod on Synodality, currently in the planetary phase of its consultation, would have delighted Cardinal Bernardin. An increasing mass of meetings and proliferation of processes in the Church means greater influence for the administrators needed to coordinate all the paper. 

Cardinal Bernardin would have been adept at producing from the synodal consultations exactly the result that he and his allies desired, no matter who was consulted. Clericalism goes by many names.


Sexual Misconduct

Cardinal Bernardin was the first senior prelate, let alone cardinal, to be accused of sexual misconduct in the glare of global publicity. The allegation, which landed on the front page of every newspaper in the world in 1993, was made by a former seminarian. Within a year, the accusation was withdrawn, and the seminarian complained that he had been manipulated by others into making a false accusation. Cardinal Bernardin was exonerated and even traveled to meet his accuser in a moving act of reconciliation. 

Cardinal Bernardin, like Cardinal George Pell after him, was an early pioneer in dealing with clergy sexual abuse. Like Cardinal Pell in Melbourne, Cardinal Bernardin implemented in Chicago policies that were pioneering at the time and before the issue seized the public agenda. Thus it was a cruel irony that Cardinal Bernardin himself would be falsely accused.

Since 1993, it is no longer surprising when a senior bishop is accused. The most recent case of false accusation was against Bishop Nicolas DiMarzio, recently retired in Brooklyn.


Prayer and the Busy Bishop

Cardinal Bernardin had rocketed up the American hierarchy — and was on the influential Congregation for Bishops in Rome — but only gave cursory attention to prayer.

“When I was ordained I had the same ideals as any young person, and I worked hard at them,” Cardinal Bernardin said in 1985. “But I have to admit that I kept so busy I really didn’t take time to develop a deep spirituality. … I wasn’t a bad person, but still it seemed that the work I was doing always took priority over prayer.”

“When I had become archbishop of Cincinnati, I suddenly began to realize that I was counseling people to do things that I myself wasn’t doing. I was calling them to spirituality and a way of life that was far beyond where I was. I remember telling myself that I had to do something about it as a matter of personal integrity,” Cardinal Bernardin said. 

“One evening I was in a restaurant with three young priests, two of whom I had ordained. We were talking about this, and I realized that all three were further advanced than I in spirituality. They told me, ‘If you really feel this way, you should do something about it.’ I thought at the time it was kind of strange that these three younger men were telling me, the bishop and the older person, what I should be doing!”

It was then that Cardinal Bernardin adopted the practice of beginning his day with an hour of prayer. He later would share his own experience of previously neglecting prayer — even while president of the bishops’ conference — to encourage others that it was never too late to give prayer its proper priority.


Holy Death

In 1995, Cardinal Bernardin underwent surgery for pancreatic cancer. In August 1996 the cancer returned, and he died that November, at age 68. Had he enjoyed better health, he may well have remained in office in Chicago until 2008. 

The early deaths of Cardinal Bernardin in Chicago and Cardinal Terence Cooke in New York led to the two most important American appointments of St. John Paul II — Cardinal O’Connor in New York and Cardinal Francis George to succeed Cardinal Bernardin.

In his last months, Cardinal Bernardin spent time with the sick, praying with them and for them, and preparing for his own death in an edifying manner. St. Joseph, his patron, granted him the grace of a holy death, well prepared.

In his last months he wrote a short memoir of illness and dying, The Gift of Peace. His advice was simple: Pray when you are well because it is hard to pray well when you are sick. The book was published posthumously to wide appreciation.



‘The 7 Last Words of Christ’ aired on EWTN on Good Friday 2023.

‘The 7 Last Words of Christ’ 2023

This year’s meditations by Father Raymond J. de Souza honored the late Cardinal George Pell, including some of his meditations from his ‘Prison Journal.’